Tarot: great modular graphic novel, arranged in a spread and read by super wise super cool Sacred Expanse rock-witch Michelle Mae. I’ve been a fan of hers since 1995, when I saw her band the Make-Up on a bill with Fugazi and Slant 6. Michelle has me set intentions. I share with her my questions for the cards — “What should I be open to? How do I make the best of the year ahead?” — and, upon her instruction, also voice them again silently, eyes closed. She pulls the spread: lays it out on a table, explaining that it can be read both linearly and holistically (i.e., taken as a whole). The two of us then proceed to do so as follows. She introduces the cards one by one, naming them, raising them into my field of vision one at a time, without my knowing at any given point until the end how many there are in total. “Some difficult cards,” she reports. “Two of them major arcana.” Michelle helps me make sense of what she admits with a laugh is a bit of a crazy spread. She sends me afterwards a sacred Tibetan meditation practice, urging me to approach it with utmost respect.
I am to visualize my demons sitting across from me.
I am to ask them what they desire, and I am to feed it to them.
By these means, the instructions suggest, we convert out shadow self into an ally. We become whole again, filled with a sense of power, compassion, and love.
Mind blown by the experience of seeing musician Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up perform at Irving Plaza in the spring of 1995, the Narrator had kept up with Michelle’s bands over the years. Never, though, had he met Michelle in person. Life is like that sometimes, especially for those of us with rich fantasy lives. Rarely do we get to sit down one-on-one to converse with the heroes of our youth.
“But early last September,” notes the Narrator, “I did exactly that.”
Thanks to a most excellent gift from his friends, he had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle and working one-on-one with her on Zoom in her capacity as a tarot reader.
She appeared onscreen sitting at a table in her home in Tucson. “I remember noting in the room behind her,” notes the Narrator, “a handcrafted besom leaned upright against a gray stone hearth.”
“There were some difficult cards in my spread,” confessed the Narrator to his friends in the days that followed. “But Michelle is super wise, super cool. She helped me see what the cards might be trying to teach me.”
I wake to an announcement from a “witch of Instagram” whose readings have proven insightful in the past: we’ve entered “Mercury Retrograde.” Her advice for the next three weeks is basically “stay calm, go with the flow, despite feelings of postponement.” And the day is a good one: a friend invites us to her new home, with its beautiful porch and garden. I stroll around admiring the latter’s rocks and stones and many varieties of plants. The place seems magical: an apt terrain for psychedelic psychogeography, with its porch swing and its side porch overlooking the garden, and its meditative loft and its stained-glass window. It reminds me of a house from my past: a house that before my time belonged to a gay wizard. Someone from the home’s past — the wizard or one of his successors — had mounted on the wall above its side porch a cattle skull. Let the home’s stories and images be brought back into awareness. Write it, I tell myself, as if it were a weird tale: flotation tanks, rock boy. A spooky tale, certainly — but not a work of horror. The narrator is a bit like the Edward Jessop character from the movie Altered States: a professor who embarks on a psychedelic journey. The journey occurs during the period of the professor’s tenancy in the home of the gay wizard. Imagine him here recalling it now in retrospect. His spiel is, “It never occurred to me at the time that the place might have been haunted.” This, despite the fact that he grew up only a few towns away from the infamous ‘Amityville Horror’ house, raised by a mother who herself was raised down the street from one of the houses upon which the story of Poltergeist is based. Let our soundtrack be as follows:
Walpurgis Night, when witches meet for bonfires and dancing. I watch newly digitized footage of old noise performances, a friend pointing me out to me. Guitarist in one performance, tape-scratcher in another. The space of the latter performance angular, erratic, static, galloping gabba-gabba beats and tape shrieks. Before the seated players, a friend sits hidden in a plastic cube. Onto this plane of intensities, the spectral re-animated echolalic vibrato of a ghostly Karen Carpenter crooning “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Sarah and I celebrate her birthday by beginning A Discovery of Witches, a British television series based on the first book in author Deborah Harkness’s “All Souls” trilogy. It’s a fantasy series, magic a central facet of its world.
My thoughts are of work, therapy, fatherhood, and love.
But in brief respites of freedom from concern with the above, I’m thinking,
Why was Robert Christgau so dismissive of LSD in his rock criticism of the early 1970s — as in his review of Funkadelic’s debut? Was he not “experienced”? Did he have a bad trip? How about George Clinton and Funkadelic? Where did the arrow of the acid trip land them by their 1973 album Cosmic Slop? Had America become for them a witch’s castle, as on their creepy anti-Vietnam War song “March to the Witch’s Castle”?
I used to think that others I met were wise witches and wizards welcoming me and guiding me, everyone and everything a potential teacher. I was a gnostic initiate on the threshold of a newly re-enchanted cosmos. At some point prior, an event had occurred that changed me, my sense of time and space altered. Pot restored some prior magical conception of reality that I’d been made to hide or repress — even as it also opened me to new modes of experience. I had become fearful in certain ways during my schooling. I’d developed emotional and psychological armor, shutting myself off from awe, desire, love, pain, hope — so as to just endure amid fear of bullying. It happened early in my childhood. A neighbor down the street used to push me. I was bullied and betrayed. This kid was my “best friend” at the time. Yet he pushed me around. He hurt me. That pattern of bullying and abuse continued, repeating itself in middle school and high school and beyond. These events turned me inward. I became like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. Pot got me out of that pattern. It helped me peek my head out of the Cave, like the dude who escapes in Plato’s allegory. I started to think of myself in terms of that character: the freed prisoner, the one whose head pierces the veil. At the end of the high (which can also be an ascent, a flight north), the hero returns again to the cave to free the others. The myth is restaged countless times; it can be transhistorical, like Christ’s harrowing of Hell, or historically specific, like Harriet Tubman’s many journeys to the South. The myth can be told as part of one’s past or one’s future. Millions of people relate to this tale in one or another of its many retellings. What about today? Is this still the narrative with which I fashion myself? I’ve become more discerning than that, have I not? In my encounters with witches and wizards, I study statements and practices. I listen for clues. If it seems like a person or group is trying to trick me or manipulate me, I bounce.
On the train again headed back to London after a lovely time in Cornwall. We toured the hills and fields, dined on regional fare — baps, fish and chips, pasties, clotted cream, cones of Cornish whippy — communed with ducks, geese, crows, and seagulls, not to mention dogs, dogs, all manner of canine, Boscastle is a doglovers’ paradise — plus wildflowers, we mustn’t forget wildflowers, hedgerows dotted with dainty purple foxgloves and daisies, with time set aside Saturday night, after all this Arcadian hiking and lazing about, for a candlelit evening tour of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Among the displays of charms and potions and wishing mirrors, the items that most intrigued me were the colorful Golden Dawn artifacts and the ornate robe worn in rituals performed by Argentum Astratum.
Pint glasses clank together in a bin behind a bar emptied of patrons on a gray evening — the eve of another workweek. Pubs of this sort are all wood, leather, and tweed. Old-timey, tradition-bound. But comfortable all the same. I’ve been reading up on witches these past few days, Alex Mar’s book Witches in America leading me through a brief history featuring figures like Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley and groups like the OTO. I’m of mixed mind regarding this history, curious but wary. The power of these traditions seems undeniable — but what are the principles guiding this power, and toward what end?